Policy Implications of the Gender Imbalance among America's Jews

By Fishman, Sylvia Barack; Parmer, Daniel | Jewish Political Studies Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Policy Implications of the Gender Imbalance among America's Jews


Fishman, Sylvia Barack, Parmer, Daniel, Jewish Political Studies Review


Within the liberal wings of American Judaism, women are increasingly prominent both as leaders and participants, and men are increasingly marginal. This gender imbalance differs from most Jewish communities historically and from many other Jewish communities around the world today, in which men characteristically played the most prominent roles in Jewish affairs as well as public religious settings and rituals. The systemic alienation of American Jewish males begins in boyhood, and has profound effects on every aspect of Jewish life. This development is of concern to Jewish leaders and policy planners because it affects not only religious but also communal and demographic realities. Jewish activities have less value, and Jewish friends and potential marriage partners seem less appealing to Jewish boys and men than they do to girls and women. American Jewish men are also less engaged than American Jewish women in the "peoplehood" aspects of Jewishness, including visiting Israel and seeing Israel as very important to their personal lives. This essay suggests that research and policy planning efforts should be placed in the broader American context, which profoundly influences American Jews. Gender imbalance is not a foregone conclusion. Jewish social history, and other Jewish societies today, show that men need not be distant from Jewishness.

Introduction

As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, Jewish men and women in the United States have become characterized by a gender imbalance that differs from most Jewish communities historically and from many other Jewish communities around the world today. In liberal Jewish America, women have become central and men have become marginal.

The "feminization" of almost every aspect of non-Orthodox American Jewish life means not only that girls and women outnumber their male counterparts, but also that Jewish activities have less value and seem less appealing to Jewish boys and men. Because Jewishness seems less compelling and meaningful to Jewish men, Jews - male and female - are similarly less attractive to them. American Jewish women are more engaged than American Jewish men in the "peoplehood" aspects of Jewishness: visiting Israel, seeing Israel as very important, having mostly Jewish friends, wanting to marry a Jewish husband and to raise Jewish children.

This contemporary American Jewish gender imbalance reverses a historical gender imbalance in which girls and women are marginalized from public Judaism which is still characteristic of Orthodox Jewish societies. American Jewish synagogues, classrooms, religious ceremonies and rituals and secular cultural expressions disproportionately do not engage boys and men. The challenge facing the American Jewish community is not that women are more active surely a positive development, but that men and boys have retreated from much of American Jewish life.

The feminization of religion has long been common in Protestant America, and the feminization of Judaism can be regarded as a dimension of assimilation. American social scientists routinely assert that women are more "religious" than men are, whether through essential psychological differences or social conditioning: "By now it is so taken for granted that women are more religious than men that every competent quantitative study of religiousness routinely includes sex as a control variable."1 But the feminization of American Judaism has an insidious sociological impact upon Jewish societies. Because Jews have regarded themselves as a people - not only as a belief system the disengagement of men comprises a crisis. This essay summarizes the problem and presents a new focus on the policy implications and the necessity for more extensive research. The problem is discussed at greater detail in our monograph: Matrilineal Ascent/ Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life.2

Methodology

This study works with quantitative, qualitative and cultural data - a kind of triangulation of source materials. …

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